New Book Coming Soon – Geographic Thought: A Critical Introduction

I have not written much on this blog for a while. I have been belatedly finishing a book on Geographic Thought I have been writing for about five years. It is delivered! It has been an irritant at times but mostly a labour of love. Just to wet your appetite I attach the first few pages of the final draft…

Introduction (extract), Geographic Thought: A Critical Introduction (Blackwell, 2013)

If the scientific investigation of any subject be the proper avocation of the philosopher, Geography, the science of which we propose to treat, is certainly entitled to a high place…

(Strabo 1912 [AD 7-18]: 1)

Geography is a profound discipline. To some this statement might seem oxymoronic. Profound geography seems as likely as ‘military intelligence’. Geography is often the butt of jokes in the United Kingdom. A school friend of mine who was about the start a degree in pure mathematics described my chosen degree as the ‘science of common-sense’. I once appeared on a public radio quiz show in the United States. When the host asked me what I did and I explained I was a geography student he asked what geographers had left to do – surely we know where Milwaukee is already? I mumbled an apologetic answer. Taxi drivers ask me to name the second highest mountain in the world trying to catch me out by avoiding the obvious first highest. My parents thought I was going to be a weather forecaster. So why is geography profound? Why indeed would the classical Greek/Roman scholar Strabo (more on him in chapter two) suggest that geography deserves a ‘high place’ and that it constitutes ‘philosophy’?

Strabo presented a number of answers ranging from the fact that many ‘philosophers’ and ‘poets’ of repute had taken geography as central to their endeavours to the fact that geography was indispensable to proper government and statecraft. But perhaps most profoundly:

In addition to its vast importance in regard to social life, and the art of government, Geography unfolds to us the celestial phenomena, acquaints us with the occupants of the land and ocean, and the vegetation, fruits, and peculiarities of the various quarters of the earth, a knowledge of which marks him who cultivates it as a man earnest in the great problem of life and happiness.

(Strabo 1912 [AD 7-18]: 1-2)

‘The great problem of life and happiness’. This was and is a central philosophical and theoretical problem. How do we lead a happy life? What constitutes a good life? How should people relate to the non-human world? How do we make our life meaningful? These are profound questions and they are also geographical questions.

In addition to being profound, geography is also everywhere. The questions we ask are profound because of, not in spite of, the everydayness of geographical concerns. This point is well made in this extended extract from an essay by the cultural geographer, Denis Cosgrove.

“On Saturday mornings I am not, consciously, a geographer. I am, like so many other people of my age and lifestyle, to be found shopping with my family in my local town-sector precinct. It is not a very special place, artificially illuminated under the multi-storey car park, containing an entirely predictable collection of chain stores – W.H. Smith, Top Shop, Baxters, Boots, Safeway and others – fairly crowded with well-dressed, comfortable family consumers. The same scene could be found almost anywhere in England. Change the names of the stores and then the scene could be typical of much of western Europe and North America, Geographers might take an interest in the place because it occupies the peak rent location of the town, they might study the frontage widths or goods on offer as part of a retail study, or they might assess its impact on the pre-existing urban morphology. But I am shopping.

Then I realise other things are also happening: I’m asked to contribute to a cause I don’t approve of; I turn a corner and there is an ageing, evangelical Christian distributing tracts. The main open space is occupied by a display of window panels to improve house insulation – or rather, in my opinion, to destroy the visual harmony of my street. Around the concrete base of the precinct’s decorative tree a group of teenagers with vividly coloured Mohican haircuts and studded armbands cast the occasional scornful glance at middle-aged consumers….

The precinct, then, is a highly textured place, with multiple layers of meaning. Designed for the consumer to be sure, and thus easily amenable to my retail geography study, nevertheless its geography stretches way beyond that narrow and restrictive perspective. The precinct is a symbolic place where a number of cultures meet and perhaps clash. Even on a Saturday morning I am still a geographer. Geography is everywhere.”

(Cosgrove 1989: 118-119)

Here Cosgrove reflects on the way our discipline sticks close to the banal everydayness of life. It is not possible to get through an hour, let alone a day, without confronting potentially geographical questions. Shopping centres in medium sized British towns do not seem particularly profound (when compared to the question of the origins of the universe say) but they are.  They are full of geography. But this geography is not always readily apparent. It is not just there like park benches or shop windows. To see it we have to have the tools to see it. We need to know about the importance of a ‘peak rent location’ or even what a ‘symbolic place’ is and to know this we have to think about geography theoretically. So geography is at the same time ‘profound’ and everyday. Unlike theoretical physics or literary theory it is hard to escape geography. Once you are a geographer, particularly one interested in theory, you are always a geographer. It is this confluence of the profound and the banal that gives geographical theory its special power.

This book is focussed on key geographical questions. It is based on my belief that geography is profound: that the ideas geographers deal in are some of the most important ideas there are. Each of the chapters that follows may occasionally seem slightly arcane as I recount the arguments that geographers and others have with each other in the pages of journals and monographs. But at the heart are important questions. They are important both for the existential dimension of how we lead a good life and for more worldly issues of equality, justice, and our connections to the natural world. I am convinced that thinking through the theoretical issues of geography at least makes us more aware of ourselves, of the world and of our relationship with the world.

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